Mulholland’s Contract

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication History

The poem was first published, in the Pall Mall Gazette, 6 June 1895 and the Pall Mall Budget, three weeks later, 27 June 1895. The Pall Mall Gazette was a well-established London evening paper, while the Budget was an associated weekly magazine.

Seven of the poems collected in The Seven Seas were first published in the Pall Mall Gazette and the Pall Mall Budget, in a run from 25 April 1895 (“That Day”); 02 May (“The Mother Lodge”); 09 May (“The Men that Fought at Minden”) ; 23 May (“The Miracles”); 30 May (“Birds of Prey March”); 06 June (“Mulholland’s Contract”) and 13 June (“The Liner She’s a Lady”). Charles Carrington’s extracts from Carrie Kipling’s diary give no dates for the writing of any of the individual poems other than “McAndrew’s Hymn”’, “The Mary Gloster”, “The Song of the Banjo” and “The Three Decker”.

“Mulholland’s Contract” is collected in:

  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1918)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol xxxv
  • Burwash Edition vol xxviii

See David Alan Richards p. 92 for further details of publication.


Mulholland is a seafaring stockman, looking after cattle penned on board ship: almost certainly, though it is not so stated, on the North Atlantic passage from America to Europe. In verse 1 he sets the scene: a roaring Atlantic gale, and the cattle pens on the lower deck have broken, from the weight of animals which have lost their footing being thrown against the timbers of the pens.
In verse 2, Mulholland has been in amongst them, singing to them in the hope of keeping them calm (as was done by ‘cowboys’ out on the range when driving the beasts to the railhead). As the roughest, toughest, stockman on board, he has been given the most dangerous area to look after.

In verse 3, he says that he is as scared as the cattle must be, and he can see that he may well be killed or badly wounded himself. So he makes a Contract with God.
In verse 4, he sets out the terms of the Contract: if he comes out of the voyage alive, he will “exalt His Name” forever.

In verse 5, he is saved, though with a crack on the head which has made him “as crazy as could be.” In verse 6, he is spending seven weeks recovering in the Seaman’s Hospital. (There were Seamen’s Hospitals in all the major ports, supported by the better ship-owners and charitable donations.) In verse 7, God tells him that to fulfil his Contract, he must go back to the cattle boats and preach the Gospel there. In verse 8, God explains that his ministry is to be there before it is too late for the other stockmen. In verse 9, God tells Mulholland that he must teach them, in God’s Name, to give up the evil lives they have been living.

In verse 10, Mulholland tells us that that wasn’t what he had in mind – he had thought of preaching religion in a general sort of way ashore. In verse 11, Mulholland tells how he dealt with his fellow stockmen – if they smite him, he first turns the other cheek – but then he knocks them down, and persuades them to follow the path of Grace. In verse 12, he tells how he preaches on Sunday (when it’s calm) and he uses no pistol or knife, but the Lord is behind the strength of his arm.

In verse 13, he tells how he himself is following the path, saving his money, and trusted to look after the most dangerous cattle, putting his trust in God. In verse 14, he says that his captains think him mad, but they wouldn’t give such a responsible post to a lunatic.


Until 1914 or thereabouts, cattle in large quantities were regularly shipped across the North Atlantic to Europe (to Ireland and England in particular), where they were fattened (just enough) before slaughter to provide food for Great Britain’s urban population. (Kipling’s SS Dimbula (‘The Ship that Found Herself’ in The Day’s Work) had “arrangements that enabled her to carry cattle on her main deck and sheep on her upper deck if she wanted to”).

The Welsh poet W H Davies, a contemporary of Kipling’s, shipped in the 1890s on a steamer carrying sheep across the North Atlantic from Baltimore to Glasgow, for ‘fifty shillings down’, and found it an experience not to be repeated. ‘For fifty thousand shillings down, I would not sail again with sheep.’. His poem “Sheep” was published in 1911 in Songs of Joy, and Others.

The North Atlantic trade largely ceased at the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s. However, live sheep are, or certainly were until recently (2011), carried from Australia to the Middle East.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

The fear was on the cattle: the cattle are afraid: they’re in an unaccustomed environment, packed tightly together, without their customary smells, and with their whole world moving about. No wonder they’re afraid. The cattle trade at that period paid no regard to animal welfare.

[Verse 2]

I had been singin’ to them to keep ‘em quiet there: Ralph Durand explains:

Prairie or bush bred cattle are very wild when they are first herded and driven towards market. At night-time they are liable to stampede at any sudden noise, even that of a stick breaking beneath a horse’s hoofs. It is therefore the duty of a stock man or cowboy who rides round a herd at night to sing continuously, whether he has any musical ability or not. The cattle learn to associate the sound of singing with the men who drive them and to whom they get accustomed. Therefore when they are on a cattle-ship their natural fear of the unaccustomed noises of the sea will be modified if, above the din of the gale, they can hear the strains of the ‘Swanee River’ or ‘Yip-i-addy’.

[Verse 6]

stanchion: a vertical post, usually of iron or steel, part of the ship’s structure.

[Verse 9]

They mustn’t knife on a blow: they must not draw a knife on a man, just because they have been hit with a fist.

[Verse 11]

I have been smit:  an archaic form of the past participle of ‘to smite’ – today, usually ‘smitten’.

An’ turned my cheek to the smiter exactly as Scripture says: See Luke 6, 29: ‘And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek, offer also the other’.

[Verse 13]

Four pound ten a month: £4.50 in today’s depreciated currency – one pound a week (and all found): about what a stockman would get on an English farm at the time, but a more dangerous job, no job security, no pay between voyages and no pension.

never lose a steer: steers are male beef cattle of any age.


©Alastair Wilson 2011 All rights reserved